The Founders of NOW

In 1965 or 1966, writer Betty Friedan came to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) to interview my boss, the EEOC’s General Counsel, and his deputy for her next book. (She had published the ground-breaking The Feminine Mystique in 1963.)

I was the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC, and at that time the only woman in that office, so she noticed me. She asked me what was really happening at the EEOC, the agency that had the responsibility for implementing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, prohibited gender discrimination in employment by covered employers, employment agencies, and labor unions. At that time, the Commission was dragging its heels with regard to interpreting and implementing the gender discrimination prohibitions of the Act, and I was very frustrated about that. I told Betty that what this country needed was an organization to fight for women like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) fought for Negroes (the term then in use for African Americans).

Subsequently, in June and October 1966, at two meetings, both in Washington, D.C., NOW (National Organization for Women) was formed. I was present at, and participated in, the second meeting that was held in the basement of the Washington Post Building on Halloween weekend (October 29 and 30).

My becoming a founder of NOW colored the rest of my life. To this day, I remain a feminist activist and am a member of the Sarasota-Manatee (FL) chapter of NOW.

On November 3, 2009, founder Alice S. Rossi, a noted sociologist and feminist scholar, died. Professor Rossi, who had taught at the University of Massachusetts from 1974 until her retirement in 1991, was a co-founder of Sociologists for Women in Society and its first president as well as being the third woman president of the American Sociological Association. One of her most influential articles was "Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal."

Cognizant of the fact that the founders of NOW were passing from the scene, I decided to do some research on them. I wanted to find out just how many founders there had been, who they were, and how many were still alive. I knew that this information was not available anywhere, including at NOW’s headquarters.

During my research in December 2009 and January 2010, I had help from a number of feminist friends, especially from two other NOW founders, Mary Eastwood and Muriel Fox. I concluded that there had been fifty founders: twenty-eight women signed on in June 1966 at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women and another twenty-two (both men and women) became founders at the October 1966 organizing meeting. These fifty men and women came from fourteen states and the District of Columbia. The largest number of founders (fourteen) came from the Washington, D.C., area (Washington, D.C.; Virginia, and Maryland). New York State was next with thirteen, and Wisconsin third with nine.

I was able to find updated information on forty-three of these fifty, of whom eleven survived as of January 1, 2010.  Founder Pauline A. Parish, the only founder from the state of Colorado, died in early February 2010 at the age of ninety, so now there are ten survivors among the forty-three on whom I was able to get up-to-date information.  The oldest survivor appears to be Mary Lou Hill, who was born in 1916.

In addition to the founders, there were a number people involved who were strong supporters of NOW’s founding, including Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, later Lieutenant Governor of Michigan.

In 1986, Mary Eastwood, Catherine East, and I arranged for a twentieth anniversary reunion of NOW founders that took place on October 25 that year at the Georgetown townhouse of Dick and Nancy Graham. (See my article, "Three Legendary Feminists," which includes Catherine East) Dick had been one of the EEOC’s first five commissioners and was a founder of NOW. Kathy Bonk of the NOW Media Group handled press coverage of the reunion for us.

Three women who could not attend the reunion, Catherine Conroy, (a founder), Sister Mary Joel Reed (a founder), and Sister Austin Doherty (a supporter of NOW’s founding), sent the reunion committee a fifteen-minute videotape, which included their recollections of the founding of NOW. That videotape is part of the NOW collection at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the reunion, the twenty or so founders who attended made a four-hour audiotape on which each told how they happened to become a founder of NOW. A copy of that tape is available both at the Schlesinger Library and at the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), the Sewall-Belmont House on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

On November 21, 1996, the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA), an organization founded in 1992 to honor the pioneer feminists of the second wave of the women’s movement, honored the founders of NOW at Barnard College in New York City by awarding them VFA Medals of Honor on the occasion of NOW’s thirtieth anniversary. Two DVDs were made on that occasion, which are available at the Schlesinger Library. The DVDs can also be purchased from Jacqui Michot Ceballos, founder and president of VFA, by contacting her at:

Veteran Feminists of America
P.O. Box 44551
Phoenix, AZ 85064
tel. 602-684-4446


Finally, a videotape of this event is available at NWP.

I knew a number of the founders, of course, people like:

    Betty Friedan , the iconic feminist leader who started it all with the 1963 publication of her book, The Feminist Mystique ;
    Mary Eastwood, a Justice Department attorney who played an incalculable role in NOW’s founding and co-authored "Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII" (34 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 232, Dec. 1965), the first law journal article analyzing the gender discrimination provisions of Title VII, with the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (Pauli Murray is also discussed in my article "Three Legendary Feminists," referred to above.);
    the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, an African American attorney, poet, author, college professor and administrator, the first African American to earn a doctorate at the Yale Law School and the first African American woman Episcopal priest in the U.S. ( In March 2009, the Pauli Murray Project was created in Durham, North Carolina, where Pauli grew up, to reintroduce her to the Durham community and continue her fight for justice and social change.) ;
    Inez Casiano, an EEOC staffer, and the first Hispanic graduate of the Federal Executive Institute (1971);
    Muriel Fox, the former executive vice president of Carl Byoir & Associates, one of America’s three largest public relations firms, who was described on BusinessWeek magazine’s list of 100 Top Corporate Women in June 1976 as the "top-ranking woman in public relations"; and
    Sister Mary Joel Read, who retired in 2002 after thirty-five years as president of Alverno College, a Catholic college for women in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But through my research I learned about some of the other NOW founders. They were exceptional and inspiring people, people like:

    Min Matheson, who had an incredible career as a labor, community, and civic leader;
    Lucille Hazell (née Kapplinger), who was the Legislative Assistant to Governor George Romney of Michigan from January 1, 1965, through the end of October 1967;
    Mary-jane Ryan Snyder, the first public relations director for Planned Parenthood-Chicago area and chair of the Population Institute in Washington, D.C.; and
    Carl N. Degler, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History for his book, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States .

It is a group to which I am privileged to belong.

© Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes is a feminist activist, author, public speaker, and retired attorney who lives in Sarasota, Florida. Her website is at

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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